Science fiction and horror often use fantastical ideas to mirror real human anxieties and situations – this is often personified in the form of the ‘monster,’ a representation of the Other or abnormal in society. This Other can take many forms over the course of human history, and as such monsters in fiction mean different things based on their contexts. Two major works in science fiction in particular – Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein and Ridley Scott’s cyberpunk thriller film Blade Runner – tackle the idea of the ‘monster’ as embodiments of cultural anxieties about the Other. In this essay, Frankenstein’s monster and the replicants of Blade Runner will be examined in terms of what they represent as cultural ‘monsters.’
In order to understand the issues these monsters represent, it is important to comprehend the societal issues that were prevalent during the time in which these works were created. In the case of Frankenstein, the late 19th century was a time in which the Industrial Revolution was starting, and science was beginning to become more legitimately recognized as a way to explain the world. With the advent of science, people became increasingly concerned about man’s reach exceeding its grasp; scientists were feared to be playing God, especially as knowledge about biology, medicine and the human body began to increase. The author herself, Mary Shelley, had recently lost a child before writing Frankenstein, and so it was natural that she would write a book which details ways to bring dead people to life through science. To that end, Mary Shelley’s work was very much a product of its time and the concerns of the author.
As for Blade Runner, the film was loosely adapted from the Philip K. Dick short story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, dealing with the issue of lifelike robots called ‘replicants’ and their illegal nature on Earth. In the 1980s, mankind was becoming increasingly concerned with the effects of pollution on our world, leading to the prescient, smoky atmosphere of future Earth. The increased possibilities of computing were also a major issue, leading many to wonder what the potential for these new machines would be; the corporatization of artificial life (as in the film’s Tyrell Corporation) also echoed the greed-is-good Big Business-friendly Reagan years, making a film about sentient AI fighting for agency against a corporate-run world uniquely 80s in its subject matter.
Given these anxieties and concerns at play during the time of their creation, the monsters of Frankenstein and Blade Runner certainly have their origins in those cultural aspects. Victor Frankenstein is the quintessential mad scientist – capricious, vain, eager to prove himself and do the impossible without considering the ethical consequences; this makes him the perfect image of what people feared science would lead us to. By the end, Victor admits that he did what he did out of a lack of respect for mankind itself - "I abhorred the face of manoh, not abhorred! I felt attracted even to the most repulsive among them" (Shelley 184-185). Frankenstein’s monster is misunderstood, to be sure, but that comes from Victor’s abuse of the knowledge he has gained through scientific research. He plays God, and the result is a hideous creature that is immediately shunned by his creator and driven into a state of murderous revenge. Frankenstein’s monster represents the cultural fear of scientific advancement, and society not being able to catch up with these new wonders.
The 80s concerns about corporate identity and the nature of humankind are reflected likewise in Blade Runner; the replicants are portrayed, like Frankenstein, as sympathetic human-like creatures that are driven to crime and murder in order to find agency for themselves in a world that does not accept them. All throughout the film, the line between human and replicant is blurred – the character of Rachael (Sean Young) is shown to be a replicant who does not know who she is, and hints abound in the film that protagonist Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a replicant as well. Because of that, the film seems to portray the advancement of technology and civil rights as something that should not be feared or controlled through corporations and police action; the monsters of the film are just misunderstood victims trying to get more life.
There are other, more universal concerns at play that span all eras of human history in the monsters of both these works. One central theme they have in common is their reflection of man’s fear of death – Frankenstein showcases the possibility for life beyond death, and Blade Runner questions the nature of identity and humanity, particularly through the fear of replicants who have such a short lifespan. Frankenstein’s contentious relationship with his creation is reflective of man’s relationship with God; at one point, the monster says to Victor, "You, my own creator, detest and spurn me" (Shelley 99). Conversely, Roy questions his creator’s motivations for giving him such a short life span, eventually killing his own creator by tearing out his eyes in rage and disappointment. Roy Batty’s infamous final monologue, in which he lists all the amazing things he has seen, laments that “all those moments will be lostlike tears in the rain” – in short, the replicant’s fear, like that of mankind, is that death will erase all the wonderful memories they have of their lives (Scott, 1982). Both the replicants and Victor look for ways to extend life, and to that end both works are ultimately about the things we do to stave off the finality of death.
In conclusion, both Frankenstein and Blade Runner present monsters as representations of the cultural anxieties of science, technology and death, though in varying degrees. Mary Shelley’s novel showcases the dangers of playing God with science, as well as the desire to control our destiny and the very nature of life and death itself. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner showcases beings who are so lifelike as to be indistinguishable from humans, yet are hunted down as though they are not. Frankenstein’s monster and Roy Batty’s replicants both search for more life and a sense of understanding in a world that does not accept them, and are driven to violence by that same isolation. As fictional monsters, they reflect questions on what it means to be human ourselves – Frankenstein’s monster is made of human parts, and was unnaturally brought back through science; does that make him human? Likewise, if the replicants of Blade Runner can think, feel, dream and love like humans, what makes them different from humans? These questions are at the heart of both works, and illustrate the ways in which monsters in fiction reflect real social and cultural concerns, both in their specific cultural contexts and on broader universal levels.
Scott, Ridley (dir.). Blade Runner. Perf. Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer. Warner
Bros. Pictures, 1982. Film.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Acclaim Books, 1997. Print.